The number of ducks flying south last year hit an all-time high. Needless to say, it was a very good year to hunt.

The number of ducks flying this year is down, but it's not likely hunters will notice much difference. This, too, is expected to be another good year to hunt.The Utah waterfowl season will open Saturday at 8 a.m. - or thereabouts - and will run for 106 days. The goose season also will open Saturday but will run only for 100 days. The swan season, for those with permits, will run from Oct. 3 to Dec. 6.

All things considered, the forecast is for an excellent opener.

After years of drought and low production, the northern prairies yielded a record crop of ducks last year - around 92 million. This year was not as productive, and the latest figures indicate a fall flight of around 84 million ducks.

"It's unlikely, though, when you're looking at so many ducks, that a 7 percent drop will even be felt," said Justin Dolling, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources waterfowl manager for Farmington Bay.

"I would say we're holding (on Farmington Bay) just as many ducks this year as we did last year."

The one difference is that hunters will be forced into closer quarters. The level of the Great Salt Lake is up, which means some of the waterfront marshes are flooded with salt water. Hunters will be pushed back to higher ground this year to find suitable hunting conditions.

Tom Aldrich, waterfowl program coordinator for the DWR, said as the season progresses the high water could be of some benefit. Typically, hunting pressure pushes birds to "loafing areas" or shallow, shoreline areas where birds can rest. This year those loafing areas will be in deeper water, and birds may choose not to use those areas.

More than numbers, however, the key ingredient to any good hunt is the weather. The rougher it is the better the hunting. The exception is opening morning, when hunting pressure stirs up the ducks. The weather forecast for the weekend calls for blue skies and sunshine.

As in past years, law enforcement officers will be out watching for early shooters. Last year several hundred hunters were cited for taking early shots, some as soon as 30 minutes before the official start.

This year all waterfowl hunters will be required to participate in a federal migratory game-bird study. To register, hunters must call 1-800-938-5263. They will be asked to provide their 1998 license number, license code key, name, address, date of birth and the approximate number of ducks and geese they harvested in 1997. When contacted in the field, hunters will be required to provide proof that they have registered.

The Migratory Game Bird Harvest Information program is an effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain consistent data from the states related to hunting.

Aldrich said he expects goose hunting to be good this year. Not only does Utah hold a strong resident population of geese, but gosling production was up 28 percent from last year.

The daily limit of ducks will once again be seven. The one big change is that hunters may have but one pintail. Once a prominent duck in bag limits, this year population crashed. Total numbers fell by 29 percent - 3.6 million to 2.5 million - and to a level 43 percent below the long-term average.

"Because of the limit on pintail, if a hunter is not confident about bird identification, we recommend that after the one pintail they shoot at hunters shoot only the smaller birds, like the teal, which are easier to identify," said Dolling.

Aldrich also suggested hunters shoot only when there's enough light to identify birds, and to learn the color differences birds exhibit while in flight.

The limit on geese is two dark (Canadian) and three white species.